Posted by Michel on 20.06.2012

A couple of weeks ago I was in France, in a small town on the Loire, near Tours.

We visited the local bakery (best almond croissants ever!), a large number of beautiful castles, a few cafes (good cold beer, bad coffee) and of course, the local supermarket to get our groceries.

My French in not that good (biere, vin & fromage) but it was quite easy to find my way through this supermarket. The fruit and veggies were near the entrance, followed by the bread and the cold meat. The milk, butter and cheeses (many, many cheeses) were on the back wall, in the refrigerated section.

The isles were laid out very similar to the ones in my local Woolworths, with food first, then slowly moving into non food. Even the cash registers were there where I expected them to be, near the exit!

A couple of days later we went to visit an old friend who lives only a few villages away from where we were staying. When I asked him for directions, he said he lived opposite the church, and that that would be enough. And it was. When we approached the village, we drove to the centre. It became clear that we were getting closer to the centre, because the roads became a bit smaller, and more in a circle. Then we saw a market, on the village square, and that was where the church was.

Both instances are good examples of wayfinding without signage. It is called ‘Educated Seeking’; finding your way using knowledge built up from previous experiences. You would have found your way to my friends house too, because you get that the church is in the centre of town, often bordering the town square.

At ID/Lab we often use this in our wayshowing projects. Do we really need a large sign saying ‘Reception’ over the reception desk in a hospital’s atrium, if that reception desk is visible from all directions, and is clearly designed to look like a reception desk, with a receptionist behind it who clearly looks like a receptionist?

A legible environment is just that, an environment that the user can read, can understand, can interact with -preferably without much signage. In greenfield projects we spend a considerable amount of effort working with the architects, interior designers and landscape designers to create an environment that tells the users what they need to know.

An example of that is the main entrance to a new hospital in Melbourne we are working on at the moment. We worked with the architects to rotate this entrance so that people would be facing the reception desk when they are entering through the airlock. This means that the visitor does not need a sign that requires him to rotate 100 degrees towards the reception after entering the fantastic looking atrium, but faces the reception straight on. We made sure that there are no visual obstructions or visual diversions in between the entrance and the reception desk. Visitors that come up through the lifts into the atrium also face the reception almost straight on. The latter is made possible by a slight rotation of the lift cores towards the main reception desk.

The main lifts in the atrium stand out through a different material treatment, minimising the necessity to direct to the lifts separately. All the outpatients clinics are visible from the moment you egress the lifts, either straight ahead, left or right. A couple of clinics that are accessible from a corridor, have been made more visible by visually expressing the reception desks of these clinics into the corridor, with a slightly different ceiling, floor and colour treatment.

In another hospital project, the landscape designer re-configured his plans for the main pedestrian access towards the hospital. In the initial plans planter boxes placed on the square obstructed the view from when you enter the square to the entrance. The new layout has the planter boxes placed so that they guide your eye towards the entrance. Combined with a pathway from slightly different pavers, there will be no necessity for signage towards this entrance.

The contrary is visible at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. Here the airlock actually pushes the visitor away from the direction of the main reception desk. The result is a large number of first time visitors that have the feeling of being completely lost the moment they enter the hospital.

Creating this kind of navigability through legibility requires close collaboration between the different design disciplines on a project, and is almost always only possible in a new build project. In existing buildings or campuses, the interventions are often smaller, but could still be worth the effort.

In the Austin Hospital in Melbourne we found that one of the main wayfinding challenges was a return journey from the outpatient clinics. We recommended that they changed the lino on the floor to create a clear pathway, and that they built-out a wall to block the view into a staff-only lift lobby. This relative small change made a huge difference in the wayfinding experience of the user.

We do work with signage to give directional information, but only if we cannot do that with other visual cues. This way we often get better results and end up with less signage and a better looking environment.

Shouldn’t the architect do this?
Well, yes, and in many instances they do. But it is like what the head architect on one of the large hospital projects once said: “I hate it when you guys point out where we can make an improvement to our design, because it is always so clear when you have pointed it out”.

“I wish that we would think of these things before we drew them, but then I realise that we as architects have so many other things to worry about. We have to think about the pillar strength, engineering, air conditioning, lighting, fittings, furniture, you name it”.

“This is exactly why your company brings so much value to the project; you only concentrate on how a person navigates, what they need to see, what they will experience.”